Interview: Aaron Mahnke

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Aaron Mahnke is the writer, host, and producer of Lore, a podcast about true life scary stories. When he’s not working on Lore, Mahnke writes supernatural thrillers. He lives with his family in the historic Boston area, in the very heart of Lovecraft Country and the epicenter of the Salem witch trials. You can follow him here on Twitter, and learn more about him on his website.

I chatted with Mahnke about the similarities between fairy tales and horror, and the relationship between folklore and history.

Can you start by talking a bit about LORE? Why did you decide to make the podcast? What got you interested in the history behind folklore, horror and ghost stories?

Lore is a podcast that digs into the darker side of history, uncovering the roots of common folklore and superstition, and exposing some of the more unbelievable motivations and actions of people throughout history. It’s a storytelling podcast, sort of like a fire-side chat, where I tell stories about what happened, and then try to ponder why.

Lore began as a happy accident. In an effort to grow my book sales into something that could justify the time I spent actually writing them, I tried writing a series of non-fiction essays on my five favorite New England folktales and legends. My goal was to give that away as an incentive to people willing to sign up on my fiction email list. But the project got a bit too long, and so I decided to try converting it to audio.

After a friend heard the first essay, he convinced me to skip the mailing list plan and publish it as a public podcast. The rest is history, I suppose!

My interests are in history, the unexplainable, and cultural anthropology. I love digging into the reasons behind things we believe or do, and have found that the true historical events behind a lot of our common superstitions and folklore have just as much entertainment value (or more) than the fiction we create. The truth can be frightening.

Horror and fairy tales have a lot in common–like horror, traditional fairy tales tend to be gruesome and violent. Motifs from fairy tales (like enchanted woods and werewolves) sometimes show up on episodes of the podcast. Do fairy tale inspire your work on LORE?

Fairy tales are super violent. The stories we grew up on, for the most part, are white-washed, purified versions of the originals. Red-Riding Hood gets eaten by the big bad wolf in the original — after being fed her grandmother’s blood and flesh, mind you — and the woodsman literally has to cut open the wolf to pull her out. It’s a modern horror film to the core.

I’m not sure that fairy tales inspire Lore, but they certainly become the topic for episodes from time to time. Some fairy tales are vessels that hold true events (like the Pied Piper), while others are old tales used to teach a moral or truth. Lore isn’t 100% built on fairy tales, but they are a big part of it.

I loved the episode where you recounted the history behind the Pied Piper folk tale (Episode 24, “A Stranger Among Us”). I’ve wondered about the roots of the Pied Piper legend, and was fascinated by what the episode turned up. How did you come across this history?

How I stumble on to these things is sort of a mixture of accident and stubbornness. I usually read something interesting in one article and then chase it down in other sources to see what might be known. For the Pied Piper history, the wiki page was a great jumping point because it mentions many theories and a common consensus among historians. From there, it’s easy to dig deeper.

In that episode, you talk about how the legend of the Pied Piper was created to explain away a dark historical event: the selling of Hamlin’s children to locators of the Holy Roman Empire by the townspeople. These locators were looking for people to settle newly conquered land in present-day Poland and, instead of agreeing to go themselves, many towns and villages relinquished their children, instead. Have you come across other examples of folk and fairy tales masking unsavory history?

Maybe not so blatantly, but there are many examples of “edited history”, where the story we read is just part of a larger story. Yes, the werewolf of Bedburg ravaged the village and surrounding area, but in the end, the villagers ravaged him. The victor writes the history, you know?


Interview conducted by Wren Awry